Following a personal philosophy to, “make the world a prettier place,” London-based multi-faceted fashion label Eley Kishimoto is doing just that – one dress, pair of shoes, wallpaper print and house-hold product at a time. Launched in the early 90s after designers Mark Eley and Wakiko Kishimoto fell in love as graduates undertaking internships in New York, got married and embarked on a fashion partnership, Eley Kishimoto began with the humble ambition of creating fabric prints for fashion labels. With influential designers including Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan employing their designs in their collections soon after, the duo saw the potential in creating their own clothing using their trademark bold, bright and pop floral prints.
Fifteen years after their initial capsule womenswear collection, and the brilliant double-act have become a beloved British mainstay – their show is a perennial London Fashion Week highlight, they have superstar status in fashion-savvy Japan, and their signature print work continues to frequent the catwalks of labels Louis Vuitton, Marc Jacobs, Alexander McQueen, Alber Elbaz and Jil Sander – they were even creative directors of eminent French fashion house Cacharel for AW08/09 and SS09. With their whimsically playground-love Spring/Summer09 range of school-girl inspired A-line shifts, peter-pan collars and rainbow hues behind them, Eley Kishimoto have gone exotic as a Bollywood meets air-hostess aesthetic informs their ‘Jet Set Masala’ collection for Autumn/Winter09. In their expansive multi-level warehouse space and inspiring print-making studio in Brixton, the endlessly likeable Mark Eley and Wakiko Kishimoto rug up against the ominously dark, sleet-filled sky outside and plan a crab hot-pot for dinner. With just a week until their AW09 London show, the charming couple take a moment out to talk falling in love, anti-glamour and continually growing wardrobes with Indigo Clarke.
Russh: Why did you two decide to start your label together?
Mark: Because we’re unemployable… (laughs). We thought we’d never be able to get jobs, so we got married after two years together, put all our money into buying equipment, like a print table and loom, and started our company.
Russh: So your label had modest beginnings creating prints for other designers…
Wakako: Yes, but actually I think we didn’t even really set out to do that. We just happened to be asked by some good designers like McQueen and Hussein Chalayan to create prints for them, and we had a print table, so it was easy.
Mark: That was all within a year, and then we started doing lots of prints for designers – about five per season, as well as weird textile related commissions for Motorola and theatre design for the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Russh: Did you always have it in mind to create your own product?
Mark: Yes we always wanted our own product, that’s why we created our own print studio initially. Our beginnings were very organic… we went through this stage of designing for other people and witnessed the larger industry and business side of it, and we felt like, ‘yeah we can do this, let’s try it’. And so we created a small rainwear collection in ‘96, then a lingerie collection the next season, then a proper ‘98 womenswear collection and by then we had somehow caught some spirit, got a few followers and clients that believed in us, and we haven’t stopped doing it since.
Russh: Did you recognise a similar aesthetic in one another – or is Eley Kishimoto a merging of two different styles?
Mark: We were very different when we first met – really different tastes. Wak was very painterly, her style had quite a kitsch element to it, whereas mine was very textural and minimal…
Wakako: We were just out of college when we met, so in a way we hadn’t defined our styles. We were still mucking around and trying different things. Still to this day we don’t want to be bound to any particular style – we just do the things we like and our styles have definitely grown together.
Mark: Everything around us at the time fashion-wise was macabre, dark, deconstructed – that was definitely the style at the time. So with our print equipment and Wak’s drafting skills – her drawings of flowers are perfect, we just started creating pretty flowers which defined the optimistic aesthetic and graphic-nature of our work. Once that first collection was done we moved forward, creating our identity from that.
Russh: What is your creative partnership like – what do you each bring to the label?
Mark: Wak is the main creative force in the studio – she has one assistant and everything you see now is generated by them. Myself - I just look after everything… I pretty much take care of the business side of things. I’m not saying I’m not creative, that’s just the way the business has grown, it’s a very small team.
Russh: Spending so much time together, running a label and living together with two children, is it ever difficult to just switch off and stop working?
Wakako: Yes, I definitely find it difficult to stop…
Mark: Oh I can definitely stop (laughs). It’s so easy to stop! My stress levels are so high anyway – I find it a good solution just to stop.
Wakako: There are different kinds of work though aren’t there? There is some work that is fun to do, work that feels like a pastime – that kind of creative work I find hard to just stop doing at the end of the day. Other work that is horrendous, like boring business stuff, I can definitely stop doing easily! (laughs)
Russh: You came to prominence through your characteristically bold, bright, feminine prints that you created for many high-end labels including your own – why has print continued to be such a big part of what you do?
Wakako: We entered the industry as print-makers, so I guess that is our speciality and talent. The print element is our strength and what sets us apart…
Mark: It’s like our tag, isn’t it? It’s what we’re known for, what we do and what people can expect from us. And hopefully we’ve carved a niche for that, and gained respect wherever we sell around the world for our continuity.
Russh: Do you have a signature print?
Mark: Every season we create seven or eight new prints, but we do have an archive that we draw prints from every now and then… our ‘flash’ print comes out all the time on lots of different things.
Russh: Actually when I was at University I worked at a little boutique on Crown Street, Sydney called ‘YPV’ that had the ‘flash’ wallpaper…
Mark: Oh my god! I wallpapered that shop! That was Ian Nessick’s shop – he’s a really good friend of ours. You know who’s in that space now – it’s your Mayor, Clover Moore!
Russh: What would you say the Eley Kishimoto philosophy is – I read somewhere that you just want to make the world prettier…
Mark: Yes that is really the simplest way to look at it… there’s two things we say, one is that we’re surface decorators and the world has lots of surfaces, and the other is we want to make the world a pretty place…
Russh: And that’s what keeps you motivated to design season after season?
Mark: (laughs) No, they’re just our catchphrases for journalists! (laughs).
Russh: Ha! Well thanks for such a considered answer!
Mark: No, it’s great to design season after season, it’s rejuvenating. It’s quite intense because the six month seasonal pace means you have to come up with something new twice a year…
Russh: And are you considering adding extra collections, like cruise or pre-collections to your regular business – so many labels are doing this now…
Mark: No, we're not a clever enough business to start doing that… we could, but it would be so much more work and we’re happy with what we’re doing now, it’s enough for us.
Russh: Can you tell me about your SS09 collection, what were the themes behind it – it had a very playful, childlike, almost 60s feel…
Mark: We called it ‘Little Devils’…
Wakako: Yes, it had a lot of childhood, childlike references. Rather than just childlike clothing though, it was about the world of children that adults don’t, or can’t, understand. The cruelty, silliness or schizophrenic behaviour that from children we can think is cute, but if we saw in an adult would think was completely crazy.
Russh: That sort of freedom and indifference to consequences…
Wakako: Yes, like a child wanting to cut their best friends pig-tails off – the dark and crazy actions that are under a cute skin, this is really the idea that inspired me. I used predominantly bright colours throughout the collection, with aesthetically pretty and naïve prints, shapes and colourways… but I designed it with a darker, perhaps not visible, narrative behind it. When you are doing something creative, you need an anchor that holds your thoughts in place – even if this is not clear to other people, it needs to be clear to yourself.
Mark: The theme often comes together at the very end, it can be quite a loose narrative throughout the creative stage.
Russh: Did you always dream of being fashion designers growing up?
Mark: No… I wanted to be a policeman.
Wakako: I always wanted to do something with my hands, to do something artistic. I grew up in Osaka, and studied at art school in Tokyo before coming to London to study at Central Saint Martins. I had a part-time job while I was studying, assisting a textile designer that had a small studio – I mean all I did was change her ashtrays and clean her brushes (laughs), but before I worked with her I had no idea this kind of profession existed.
Russh: You didn't dream of careers in fashion, but once your label started taking off it must have been very exciting. Has it turned out the way you envisaged – is it all glamour and fancy parties?
Mark: Oh yes completely, look at us – we’re so glamorous! (laughs) What a glamorous studio we have!
Russh: It is – it’s creatively haphazard, filled with people, you get to work together, it’s great!
Mark: Oh please! (laughs) We’re next to Brixton Prison and it’s freezing cold, raining and grey outside! Oh no, fashion, glamour - that’s the other side of our work. We’re craftspeople and get to make nice clothes – but the glamorous people buy our clothes. It’s nice surviving being creative, being able to make creative decisions every day – and fashion being our main activity is a happy accident that came about. Then we do other design projects that expand our creative vision.
Russh: It must be a pretty cool outcome to wear your own clothing Wakako…
Wakako: Yes (laughs), it’s very convenient.
Mark: Oh it’s a real shame, they don’t fit me (laughs). We made menswear once but didn’t grade it up past a sample size – and the sample sizes don’t fit me, so I didn’t get to wear them. Basically, our designs make up Wak’s wardrobe – it’s a constantly growing wardrobe, which is a bit of a nightmare (laughs). Our eleven year old daughter loves the clothing too, but she’s worried she’ll grow out of the clothing soon – she’s still too small now though.
Wakako: She’s starting to wear things now, the pieces that look fine oversized – the samples are still a bit too big for her.
Mark: She’s desperate to grow big enough to wear them.
Russh: Who would you say the Eley Kishimoto girl is?
Wakako: My sister and myself (laughs). Our friends and our staff…
Mark: A woman who knows a thing or two… that’s who we dress. That’s important to us that she knows a thing or two, and knows about us of course (laughs). We are so anti-celebrity, I hate fashion courtships with big names – it’s not for us. We’d rather have friends, and real people who can buy their own clothes and help us survive… We do have some very good friends that happen to be very famous and wear our clothing, so we look like we’re celebrity courting but we’re not!
Russh: What was the experience of coming on board as creative directors of Cacharel for AW08 and SS09 like?
Mark: It was a great year, we produced two really nice collections, had an amazing experience living in Paris with an apartment and a life there, worked really hard, had the experience of showing as part of Paris Fashion Week. We had a difference of opinion creatively for AW09 and amicably decided to part company – so we left behind a legacy of two collections, which I think were in the Cacharel spirit. It was another really interesting collaboration for us.
Russh: Can you tell me about your upcoming AW09 collection – is there a new narrative?
Mark: It’s called ‘Jet Set Masala’. How would you sum it up Wak?
Wakako: There is a focus on Asia and air-hostess uniforms – those two elements combined. I was interested in the way we automatically assume certain things are a particular ethnicity – like Chinese take-away containers and typography being Chinese, but would you actually see this packaging in Asia? Probably not. I find it so interesting that we create identifiable imagery for exotic places, but completely out of context…
Mark: But when people look at our collection, they’re just going to think “Air Hostesses and Bollywood”…
Wakako: Yes and that’s fine, but I need that bigger mental journey and narrative to create the collection. In a quick snap interview I can say something simple like that, but I’m going into what it’s really about now. I just need to have interesting thoughts and narratives to keep me going.
Russh: Where would you like to see your label going – you create accessories, furniture and homewares aside from your womenswear range … do you want to expand into other areas of product design?
Mark: Yes, we just want to keep going, keep expanding and surviving, producing nice work and products, being creatively fulfilled. We create jewellery, kimonos, bags, watches and more in Japan. Then with Eastpak we are creating a line of bags – we have done this with them before, and we’re doing a small collaboration with People Tree. We’re also launching a pop-up boutique in Omotesandou, Tokyo for two months from this Valentine’s Day. The future is just more work and peace of mind. Oh and I’m looking forward to cooking a crab hotpot later on today… perfect for this wintry weather.